The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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Gone with the….

Wind has been in the news lately.

Cyclone Winston  became a named storm on February 10th and then spent 12 days blowing around the South Pacific–literally, the storm track curved back on itself and made a big loop, something I personally hadn’t known was possible. It crossed over Fiji as a Category 5 storm, killed 21 people, and literally leveled whole communities–a kind of destruction more typical of powerful tornadoes. At one point, the storm packed sustained winds of at least 186 mph. That’s the most powerful storm ever measured in the southern hemisphere.

Then, on February 23rd and 24th, a swarm of tornadoes swept through the United States, killing at least three and injuring many more. The storms (though not the tornadoes) actually passed over my area, giving us high, gusting winds and thunder. In February.

Of course, some kind of extreme weather probably occurs somewhere on the planet every day. It’s a big planet, after all. But these are both extreme extremes–Cyclone Winston was one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever measured. And the tornado outbreak was in February. And they both relate to climate change–although, so do all other weather events, extreme or otherwise, since the climate changes on the just and unjust alike. Still, it’s interesting to look at the actual connections.

First, Winston. As I’ve written before, tropical cyclones with sustained winds of 75 mph or more are called different things in different ocean basins and different basins also have different storm seasons, and different storm behavior. In the North Atlantic, these storms are called Hurricanes. Winston was called a cyclone because it existed in the South Pacific where it is now late summer. So if it seems like we’ve heard about the “world’s most powerful storm” rather often recently, that’s in part due to the fact that we’ve had multiple basins turning up extraordinary storms, not multiple records being set and broken in just a few months. Still, we do seem to be seeing a lot of big storms lately.

As I’ve written before also, it is hard to tell for sure if tropical cyclones have been getting worse because we only have a few decades of quality data–and the way meteorologists study these storms vary from one ocean basin to another, too, which means that much of the data we do have cannot be pooled. We know that climate change should be making tropical cyclones stronger, more frequent, or possibly both, because the new climate involves warmer water and more humid air, both of which are what makes tropical cyclones happen–we just can’t actually see the changes yet because of the data problem.

But Winston was actually the result of multiple atmospheric cycles working together. Tom Yulsman write a clear and interesting article explaining these cycles. You can find his article here. To summarize, both global warming and El Niño were involved in the unusually warm water that fed the storm while an even shorter cycle, the Madden-Julian Oscillation, that changes over just weeks, made the atmosphere more stormy at just the right time. Day-to-day weather changes then steered the storm through its bizarre circular track and right over Fiji.

So the simple answer is that yes, while we don’t have the data to confirm it, we can be pretty sure that these record-breaking storms have some degree of extra edge due to climate change–and at the same time, other patterns also influence the situation.

Meanwhile, Cyclone Winston exemplifies another pattern–no matter how strong or weak a storm is, it’s going to be worse for impoverished people. Wealthy people can afford to rebuild and wealthy countries can afford to provide extensive aid. Many of those in Fiji can access neither wealth nor extensive aid–they are literally asking for help from the world. And because Fiji is very small and very far away from many of my readers’ countries, it’s all too easy to forget about them.  Please help if you can and spread the word.

As to tornadoes, again we have a serious problem with a lack of quality data. It’s hard to tell whether there are more tornadoes than there used to be when until recently there was no way to tell a tornado had happened unless somebody was there to see it. But recently some researchers have teased out a changing pattern. Apparently, the number of days per year that have tornadoes on average are stead or dropping, but the number of tornadoes per outbreak is going up. That is in keeping with the warmer, more humid air, which should make storms more powerful, and a simultaneous decrease in wind shear, also a result of global warming, which makes tornadoes less likely. So, fewer days when tornadoes can form, but on those few days, the storms are worse.

But February?

Tornado swarms in February are rare but hardly unheard of. But what some writers are saying–that the atmosphere is behaving “as though it were May“–is very striking. It’s an acknowledgement that this past week’s storm is part of a pattern that we usually don’t see and it is directly related to warmth. Specifically, the Gulf of Mexico grew unusually warm and did indeed create a kind of weather more typical of a warmer month. Given that the world is warming, these storms are a bad sign of things to come.

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Your Tuesday Update: My Day Job

Hi, all.

As some of you know, this blog is not currently funded, meaning that I have to do something else to earn a living. Specifically, I’m a free-lance writer. Many of my jobs are just that–jobs. I enjoy writing for a living, but that does not mean that everything I write appeals to my personal interests. Fortunately, there are exceptions. Among these are some of the articles I sometimes write for Teletrac, a fleet-management software company. They assign me transportation-related topics. Since the transportation industry is responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, many of my articles for Teletrac relate to emissions reductions.

Recently they asked me to write about a Federal program I had somehow not heard about before, the American Businesses Act on Climate Pledge. It is a voluntary pledge American businesses can take to reduce their emissions by specific amounts or to otherwise do something about climate change. Really, it is a domestic parallel of the Paris climate deal, which also depends on voluntary pledges.

Apparently, some pretty major companies have signed up to take the pledge. Please check out my article on the subject and see what I do for my day-job.

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Black, White, and Green

I’ve been on a Star Wars kick lately.

I know, I’ll bring it around to climate change eventually, just gimme a minute.

I’ve never been a rabid fan–I don’t have any action figures, I’ve never read the fan fic, and I don’t know the engine specifications of the Millennium Falcon–but in the past few weeks, I’ve seen all seven of the extant Star Wars movies and I had seen all but the newest one before. And it got me thinking about morality and ethics.

(I’m assuming that readers already know at least the basic outlines and major characters of these movies, whether you’ve seen all of them personally or not. I’m also avoiding plot spoilers).

The first three movies–those released in the 1970’s and 1980’s, are striking in their cartoonish depiction of evil, with both goodguys and badguys killing quite casually and the most obvious difference between them being that badguys mostly wear black. There are subtler differences–the protagonists don’t torture or terrorize–but moral philosophy does not appear to be among the movies’ strong points.

And yet the fulcrum between the dark and light sides of “the Force” is a major theme of the series. Particularly striking is the sequence in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Luke sets out to rescue his friends and his teacher, Yoda, warns him bluntly that he is acting on an impulse that could lead irreversibly to the Dark Side. What could be evil about trying to save a friend?

In the third of the prequels we finally get an answer; the Sith (those who have embraced the Dark Side) are fueled by their personal passions, whereas Jedi school themselves to be impersonal and dispassionate. Jedi kill, but never in anger. Jedi love, but never one person above all others. The difference then is not how they behave so much as how they are oriented spiritually; Sith look inward while Jedi look outward.

So what is wrong with looking inward? What is wrong with the Dark Side, besides its tautological darkness?

Most obviously, the Dark Side is self-defeating. Anikin Skywalker follows his personal passions–most of which are themselves both understandable and admirable, he starts out as a genuinely loving person–and ultimately loses everything and everyone he ever cared about as a result. We learn there are only ever two Sith, a master and an apprentice, no more and no less, because as the apprentice reaches mastery he either kills his master or is killed by him (and replaced by a new apprentice to kill or be killed by in turn). They don’t, in other words, even care about each other. One wonders why the Sith bother, as their lives sound ultimately hollow.

The reason I like the prequels, though most fans don’t, is how subtly and how believably Anikin slowly becomes Darth Vader, something everyone who has seen the first three movies knows he is going to do. He does not succumb to greed, nor even to vanity, though vanity does help. He ultimately sells his soul for a chance to save someone he cares about–the very same protective, loving impulse that almost caught Luke. In Anikin’s case, the very chance he sought was a lie meant to manipulate him and he was easy to manipulate because he never learned to see beyond his own fears and desires. He never learned that his own feelings and perceptions might be different than reality.

The ultimate moral of the story is the absolute importance of learning to rise above and beyond the personal, to not be blinded by fear and desire nor jerked around by impulse. Because even if the impulses themselves are innocent,it is impossible to act wisely or lovingly if one is unwilling or unable to face and accept reality.

The Jedi never try to impose their code on ordinary people–for example, it seems as though Jedi are supposed to be celibate, but none of them ever expresses disapproval of anyone else’s sexual or romantic lives. They seem to live by their own rules, rules that apply to no one else. Perhaps they recognize that once you plug into the Force, actions have consequences that people without that power just don’t have to worry about.

Which is where we get back to climate change (told you I’d do that)

Fossil fuel is not a spiritual power, but it is a power great enough to change the rules we have to live by. Like Anikin Skywalker, we got here by wanting things that every sane person wants–to live well and to be safe. There is nothing evil in wanting to eat a banana in Maryland in February, but to actually get that banana requires the creation of a food distribution system that requires fossil fuel, which in turn inevitably destroys the world and will ultimately cost us the very good life we sold so much to achieve. The problem, and again it is also Anikin’s problem, is not what we want or what we care about but rather our human difficulty in seeing beyond our wants and our cares to the actual choices we have at our disposal–and the terrible momentum that a couple of successive bad choices can acquire. Not all steps toward the Dark Side can be undone.

Environmentalists avoid calling other people “evil.” We fear, quite understandably, alienating fence-sitters, and the reality is that most of us sit on one fence or another at least some of the time. Also, many of us have philosophical problems with the concept of evil–I myself am not sure the word is anything more than a short-cut around more nuanced moral reasoning. And, of course, dismissing other people as evil is a clear example of absolutist, dualistic thinking, something all Jedi avoid. So, don’t call other people evil–but perhaps a little introspection is in order.

I’m not saying the Star Wars series should be taken as gospel; the movies are fundamentally entertainment and while I enjoy watching them every few years, much of the material does not bear rational scrutiny (spice mines? Giant animals that live in the freezing vacuum of space apparently hoping to eat space ships? Making the Kessel run in 12 parsecs?). Nevertheless, it’s an interesting proposition to try out–that a valid way to think about morality might be where one falls on a continuum between personal passion and universal concern.


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Your Tuesday Update: Look What Bernie’s Doing!

Good news: Bernie Sanders is paying for carbon offsets for his campaign. Hillary Clinton did so in her 2008 campaign and has said she will do so for this one but has not yet made payments.

Carbon offsets are interesting. The idea is to cancel out one’s own carbon emissions by paying to reduce emissions or sequester carbon somewhere else. In practice, it’s a little more complicated. For one thing, are some kinds of offsets better than others, and how do we tell? Does it matter if the person buying the offsets has really exhausted his or her ability to reduce his or her own emissions first? Is it theoretically possible to make humanity as a whole carbon-neutral by buying offsets for everybody, and if it isn’t do offsets really work to begin with? Maybe they’re just a form of greenwashing?

I’m inclined to believe that offsets do not represent a real climate solution but are probably harmless and do direct much-needed funds to important projects. This is only a brief Tuesday update, so I’m not going into it in depth, but I’d say that the important thing is to reduce one’s own emissions first and then, sure, buy offsets. Why not?

Has Bernie Sanders minimized the carbon footprint of his campaign before buying offsets? I don’t know. At the very least, he’s putting some of his campaign money into climate-friendly projects and that is a good sign. This blog does not comment on any aspect of any electoral campaign besides climate policy, so this should not be considered an overall endorsement, but Mr. Sanders is taking climate change seriously and it is good to see.

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Your Tuesday Update: They Did WHAT?

Apparently, the Supreme Court just blocked President Obama’s plan to regulate and reduce carbon emissions. I know, I’m upset, too.

But the situation may not be as dire and unreasonable as it seems.

First of all, Mr. Obama’s plan is not dead–this is not the final ruling. The legality of the plan is being challenged in a lower court by a group of states worried about economic harm and the Supreme Court has simply decided that the plan can’t go into effect until the legal question is settled. Disappointing, especially since time is of the essence when it comes to climate action, but to my layperson’s view the principle here seems sound:

If the plan might hurt people (cost them jobs, etc.), then it should not go into effect until we are really sure it’s legal in the first place. After all, if these states are right, it will do their citizens little good to be vindicated after the regional economies have collapsed. This is just the same Uncertainty Principle that environmentalists usually like.

Of course, the net effect of climate action will be economic and social benefit, whether certain people recognize that or not, and we can only hope the courts ultimately recognize that. But the real problem is not what’s happening in the courtroom but what’s happening in the election booth. We need state governments and a Federal legislature that support climate action. And we need a pro-climate President, both for the sake of the presidency and because whoever sits in the Oval Office next will likely appoint four Supreme Court justices–and this recent upsetting decision to block the President’s effort to save the world? The decision was split precisely along ideological lines.

We need a pro-climate Supreme Court.

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Your Friday Update: How Much Energy Is Enough?

This is less an update and more a concern.

Much of the conversation about renewable energy revolves around the assumption that our energy needs as a society are somehow fixed. Critics claim that renewables cannot mobilize enough energy to replace fossil fuels–at least not any time soon–as though there is some minimal level that wind and solar et al must achieve before we can switch over. There is no such level. We don’t have to use this much energy. We could just turn the machines off. Maybe we won’t have to–maybe we’ll be able to support something very like our accustomed lifestyle with renewable energy. But the high-energy lifestyle is optional. Continuing to use fossil fuels forever is not an optional.

Supporters, meanwhile, insist that renewables can produce all the energy to meet demand–as though renewables and fossil fuels together comprise a zero-sum game, were every joule of energy produced by solar is a joule not produced by burning coal, or whatever else. And that’s not true, either. What is to prevent demand from simply growing, so that we use just as much fossil fuel as we ever have (as long as it lasts, anyway) and then we use renewables also?

History suggests that we humans seldom if ever feel that we have enough of anything. No matter how much money, time, or collectible knickknacks we have, most of us will happily take more if it’s available.

I’m not saying it’s bad to increase renewable power generation. I’m saying that doing so is not itself going to be enough. Alternatives are not enough. We also need economic structures and legal policies that specifically discourage the use of fossil fuels–one or another model of carbon pricing might do nicely.